Culture Shock: Jazmin Fermin and Mark Vargas
March 11, 2016
This story is a part of the American Pilgrimage Project, a conversation series that invites Americans of diverse backgrounds to sit together and talk to each other one-to-one about the role their religious beliefs play at crucial moments in their lives.
“I had a choice—kind of,” Mark Vargas says. A straight-A student in a public middle school in the tough Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, he heard his mother say, “I don't think you're going to public school here.” She made him apply to the Cristo Rey high school on the southwest side. He applied and got in. He was heartbroken to be separated from his neighborhood friends—but he went.
Jazmin and Mark met for an American Pilgrimage Project conversation in the StoryCorps booth at the Chicago Cultural Center. Now out of college, they both work for Cristo Rey—an innovative network of Catholic schools serving under-represented urban youth in a program that combines academic rigor and real-world work experience.
Their stories of lives changed by Catholic schooling pass over the usual themes: the spiritual dimension of Catholic education, the stress on concern for the less fortunate, the rules and uniforms, and so on. Rather, they emphasize Catholic school as a path to Jesuit university education, where each of them got a glimpse of (as Mark puts it) “what society is and what it looks like.” There, each of them—Jazmin at Fairfield University in Connecticut, Mark at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.—was suddenly plunged into a micro-society in which they were one of relatively small numbers of Latinos, after growing up in largely African-American and Latino neighborhoods.
“It was a shock to me, how much I didn't know about the world,” Mark says. And he recalls that the experience made him feel, in class, “a responsibility to voice my opinion—to voice what I thought.”
When they met to tell their stories, Jazmin and Mark were both 24 years old, and it's striking to see relatively young adults already looking back on their lives with a powerful sense of retrospect—as vivid stories of roads taken and not taken, of opportunities and responsibilities.
They don't say whether their strong sense of life's purpose comes from their Cristo Rey education—but they describe that education in terms of gift and service, suggesting that Cristo Rey's Catholic dimension had an impact after all.
“To this day it's been a blessing,” Mark says. “I don't know where my life would have been if I hadn't gone to Cristo Rey, but I can tell you where it's gonna be, in the next five to 10 years: making a difference..."
The interview was recorded and produced by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.